Mar 222019
 
hallowell

Don’t call Hallowell’s debut album “Christian rock.”

For one, it’s not really rock (though, like “indie rock,” these days the term “Christian rock” encompasses an array of genres). But more importantly, the label pigeonholes the music. Joseph Pensak, the man behind Hallowell, may be a a Presbyterian pastor singing spiritual songs, but his music wouldn’t really fit on any modern CCM playlist. He says that, though he likes some of the music contained within, he disdains reductively labeling a genre simply “Christian”: “It makes my skin crawl and sadly some amazing bands got unhelpfully placed in that genre and thus didn’t get heard by the much larger audience they deserved. As Sufjan said somewhere, ‘Christian’ is a terrible adjective.” Continue reading »

Mar 052019
 

The new compilation album Live from Robot Dog Volume Two serves as an excellent introduction to the best of Vermont’s independent musicians. But it also chronicles a deeper story, one of grief and healing for the man behind it.

Local Vermont music superfan Tim Lewis hosts a weekly show on WBKM, bringing a band into Robot Dog studios every week to record a short live set. The detailed notes he posts online tend to be as good as the music, and for this batch of shows (a song from almost every session he recorded in 2018), his notes revealed a story listeners wouldn’t hear on air. 

“2018 was a tough year for me,” he begins the liner notes. His mother had gotten sick in the fall of 2017. Her health quickly declined. She moved into hospice care by February, and passed away two months later.

A son’s grief goes without saying. Throughout the heartbreaking journey, though, Lewis found some solace in the music he was recording. Though not widely known outside of Vermont, these local bands brought moments of joy during a terrible time. For instance, he writes about a January set by post-rock band The Mountain Says No, “Their powerhouse music filled my soul, which was needed, since my mom was not recovering as expected. I remember being so happy that day.”

The music he recorded (alongside studio engineer Ryan Cohen) also provided moments of connection with his mother in her final months. Lewis describes a beautiful moment visiting his mother in hospice and showing her a video of his latest session, with electronic duo Bad Smell. “I’m not sure mom liked it,” he elaborates in an email (he says she preferred classical and country music), “but she liked that I did and helped make it happen. In the middle of the song, one of the nurses came in and said something about us having a jam session. [The nurse] seemed to really like the music, and mom just sat back and smiled. It was one of the many lovely days I had with her until late March when she really turned.”

One night in March, minutes before a session booked with 9-piece cumbia band Mal Maiz, the hospital called to let him know to prepare for the worst. “I’m sure I cried a little, then took a breath and walked into a room of people playing joyous music,” Lewis says. “I think I had done so many previous Robot Dog sessions that I was able to fall into my role of staying out of the way, chatting with the bands, and doing the interview. I was able to focus on the event and let everything else go. It was so nice to get away from it for that couple of hours.”

Carol Lewis passed away on April 2nd, 2018. The next band Tim brought to the studio was metal quartet Doom Service. “The heavy loud melodic music became a focal point that I could hold on to,” he writes, elaborating in an email: “Having Doom Service let loose some rock fury a couple of days after she died was cathartic.”

The entire Live from Robot Dog Volume Two – with Tim’s liner notes – is available for free at Bandcamp. Top photo by Brittain Shorter.

Feb 282019
 
best songs february
Barika ft. Erica T Bryan – Change Your Mind

Barika typically operates in the world-music space (leader Craig Myers plays West African string instrument the n’goni), but “Change Your Mind” points to an intriguing new direction for them. The funk and soul points more towards New Orleans than New Guinea, and the electronic production makes it sound modern, avoiding the relics-of-history feel of so much that gets marketed as “world music” these days. Continue reading »

Feb 192019
 
kristina stykos

When I first heard Kristina Stykos’ powerful new album River of Light, her singing leapt out as a highlight. Raw and plainspoken, like Lucinda Williams or John Prine, her voice presents an understated toughness. But I didn’t know the full backstory. Turns out, tough doesn’t begin to describe Stykos.

Stykos, who’s been making music since the 1970s (she used to tour with – and date – Béla Fleck), lost her voice in 2017 due to spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder that singers from Linda Thompson to Alison Krauss have struggled with. She couldn’t even talk on the phone. It wasn’t the first time; she’d lost her voice for two years in the 1980s. But this time, it didn’t entirely come back.

Continue reading »

Feb 132019
 
eastern mountain time different tomorrow night

All those artists supposedly “saving” country music often do so by bringing in non-country elements, from Sturgill Simpson’s psychedelia to Kacey Musgraves’ disco flair. But on new single “Different Tomorrow Night,” Eastern Mountain Time saves country music by playing the genre right down the middle. Songwriter Sean Hood describes Eastern Mountain Time as only a “sorta-country band,” but on this track (and on my favorite song from his last album), he leaps all the way in. Continue reading »

Feb 082019
 
fever dolls adeline

Vermont quintet Fever Dolls’ debut single “Gennifer Flowers” ranked second on our Best Songs of 2018, and now they’re back with a follow-up: “Adeline.” Never short on ideas, the band packs a lot into under three minutes. In this case, an entire piece of musical theatre written in miniature, plotted around a husband and wife both in love with the same woman.

“[Singer Renn Mulloy] and I spent years playing in different bands with people that wanted to make Radiohead’s Kid A,” says songwriter Evan Allis, “while we were trying to make Disney’s The Kid.

Continue reading »

Jan 312019
 
best new songs january
Adaline – Genese’s Song


“Genese’s Song” sounds like a Simon & Garfunkel tune recorded on the Mountain Goat’s early tape deck. Like Adaline Bancroft’s entire album, there’s a hiss and fuzz (the songs were indeed recorded on a four-track tape machine) that adds a haunting distance from the music. It feels like unearthing a dusty old recording, weathered with time, but with the tenderness and beauty shining through the decay. Fellow folkie Eric George joins on upright bass for this song, though that’s an instrument the tape recorder can’t really capture. Continue reading »

Jan 242019
 
danny and the parts
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about young revivalists like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton bringing back “real” – or, at least, more traditional – country music. Add Danny LeFrancois to that list. On Driving All Alone, the new EP he recorded as Danny & the Parts, LeFrancois channels Waylon and Willie: catchy country with some heavy themes. Continue reading »
Jan 152019
 
katie trautz

Vermont multi-instrumentalist Katie Trautz has been recording other people’s music for a decade. But, until now, never her own.

She plays fiddle in a host of of local bands, from country music group Wooden Dinosaur to Cajun duo Chaque Fois. She sang in vocal choir The Bright Wings Chorus, and wrote a book a couple years ago teaching harmony singing to kids. She co-founded the Summit School of Traditional Music and Culture in Montpelier, and teaches violin in her spare time.

Continue reading »
Dec 202018
 

I only stepped foot in Vermont once this year.

That’s the dirty little secret of this blog (well, not that secret; it says it right on the About page): I don’t live there. Haven’t since I started doing this last year.

That’s going to change when I move back in the spring, but the aim of the site won’t. I conceived of County Tracks as helping to expose the best music created in Vermont to non-Vermonters. In the digital era, it’s easy for an expat dedicated enough to follow any local scene from afar. What’s trickier is getting great local music heard by people who have no reason to care about the category of “Vermont music.”

This ties into a broader problem. The glut of choice of streaming, rather than leveling the playing field, has mostly helped the famous get more famous. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had a Billboard staffer claiming Drake was “bigger than the Beatles” because all 25 tracks on Drake’s new album appeared on the Hot 100 simultaneously. I won’t even get into the “bigger than the Beatles” nonsense (come on). The more important point is that, overwhelmed by choice, listeners are gravitating towards what they know. No matter how many times a digital music CEO says the word “discovery,” actual music discovery seems harder than ever.

I don’t know if any of the artists below are blowing up Spotify playlists, or whether any computer algorithm is pushing them on users. But they deserve attention. Great music happens beyond the big cities and big labels; it just needs exposure. In my small way, I hope these lists help a little. There’a lot of great music being made in Vermont. More people outside Vermont – people like me – need to hear it.

Continue reading »